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Friday, January 28, 2022

Lost Capital

In India, architecture and the city attract media attention for all the wrong reasons. When municipal storm drains clog, as they did recentl...

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
January 4, 2006

In India, architecture and the city attract media attention for all the wrong reasons. When municipal storm drains clog, as they did recently in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, newspapers covered the story; when Lutyens Zone bungalows were threatened by haphazard additions, it grabbed public attention. It took an earthquake in Gujarat, for TV to expose the extent of the builder-politician-bureaucrat nexus, the inadequacy of local building laws, and indeed the helplessness of city officials to enforce them. Without exception, any recall of the Indian city is inevitably coated in tragedy.

Now it’s Delhi’s turn; the city administration’s demolition drive against illegal construction has everyone up in arms. And for good reason. For here is a city made up largely of unauthorised colonies, resettlement colonies, lal dora areas, slums and urban villages — all creating their own unique forms of living, forms so dense they cannot conform to conventional methods of building and administration. Look anywhere, Delhi will supply you with inexhaustible archetypes of lifestyles and densities. In Mehrauli, 12-storey apartment blocks sit cheek-by-jowl with six-acre farmhouses; in South Delhi, a family of nine occupies a one-room tenement, while a 4-bedroom suburban mansion is home to a middle class couple. A tailor in the old city lives with his family in a single room above his shop; migrants from Rajasthan sleep under the flyover. Over 60 per cent of the city’s 12 million live in areas not even recognised by the Delhi Master Plan. Aren’t they all equal residents of the city, entitled to equal time on the city’s planning process? Isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to building codes an unfortunate and unworkable ideal for a culture that creates these multiple forms of living habitats?

How then do civic authorities govern such a place? How, indeed, does city planning work in a culture that has historically created its own models of community living? The simple truth is that it doesn’t. A European model implanted in an Indian reality, an urban Indian occupies space differently from, say, an American, Australian, even a Singaporean. Planning and the commodification of city space is a western notion. It is based on the idea of equitable allocation, rather than on community sharing. Can you impose an idea of parcelled and high-rise city space on people who have grown up in villages and small town courtyards?

Certainly, city authorities can conceptually use planning and zoning as methods to resolve the conflicts that may arise out of large numbers of diverse people settling together. However, as the recent spate of demolitions, demonstrations and acrimonious debates reveal, this is a wholly inadequate way to govern a city. As an inflexible document, the present Master Plan ignores roughly two-thirds of the city’s population and addresses its concerns only to the ideal of Delhi as a garden city. Altered by urban migrations, increasing densities, automobile invasions, large-scale commerce, even this old ideal lies transformed. Influenced by such radical departures from the original, the present bye-laws are outmoded and require reform.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. Since Delhi’s future has been left to the bureaucrats and developers there is real cause of despair. For some decades now, Delhi’s inhabitants have been uncomfortably aware that a guileless policy and unscrupulous builders have willfully eroded the city’s historic and demographic character. Building decisions have been the result of political and commercial pressures and have created an entirely artificial response to planning, driven by land speculation and oriented by market trends. Other than protecting their own homes and self created bounds, the public has no way of expressing — and, indeed, redressing the form the city has been taking. Public pressure is a necessary, legitimate and beneficial way to influence the planning process. Cities around the world happily allow variances in building bye-laws if they benefit particular neighborhoods.

Some years ago, in midtown Manhattan, in an area limited to 60-storey constructions, a builder was awarded six additional floors on his building, on the condition he release the ground floor to a public plaza. The spot decision by the three members of the New York City’s Building Variances Committee — including a local representative, a poet, and an architect — was appreciated both by the residents, who gained the plaza; and the builder, who gained floor space. Such democratic building practices are the norm in other cities as well. In Jerusalem, large-scale projects are presented in a city museum, where the public is encouraged to participate and state its views on the proposal. On the basis of the public’s campaign, the building is built, rejected or altered.

If Delhi requires anything now, it is not a blueprint for future development but a serious final attempt at salvage. Cutting out its bureaucratic strangleholds of DDAs and MCDs and NDMCs and Urban Arts Commissions and master plans and building bye-laws and conservation commissions, it is time now more than ever to start afresh. To wash the palette off the old models and stop this sullied, unabashed mimicry of Los Angeles and Chandigarh and Washington. All in the hope that some day in the future it will again become a thriving liveable metropolis.

More than ever, the building constitution of Delhi needs rewriting. Not as an amendment, but as a whole new script of unanswered questions: why are places of living, working, recreation and commerce the way they are? Do we really need roads, roads that take up a third of city space? Do we really need a municipality? If so, what would be its role in the new changed scenario of the city? How essential are setbacks for the private house when the front garden sits on a noisy polluting road or flyover? Wouldn’t it make more sense to place the servants’ quarters there, so they may offer a buffer to the house? Would buildings bridging over roadways — as they do in some of our own medieval towns — help reduce densities and create more intimate, shaded and pedestrian-friendly streets? Would a calculated reduction of cars breed healthier citizens?

In view of the city’s changing demographic and physical character, radical ideas need consideration, and more flexible legislation adopted — something that accommodates all, and creates a livelier, more visibly diverse, place. An un-globalised city tempered by the more moderate needs of an urban society looking for its own answers.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect and has authored several books on architecture and society

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